A film review by Craig J. Koban
SPIDER-MAN 3 ½
2007, PG-13, 140 mins.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man: Tobey Maguire / Mary Jane Watson: Kirsten Dunst / Harry Osborn: James Franco / Flint Marko/Sandman: Thomas Haden Church / Eddie/Venom: Topher Grace / Gwen Stacy: Bryce Dallas Howard / Capt. Stacy: James Cromwell / J.J. Jameson: J.K. Simmons / Aunt May: Rosemary Harris
Directed by Sam Raimi / Written by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent / Based on comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
It has been said that SPIDER-MAN 3 will mark the final film outing for the web-crawler with the current principle cast and director on board. Although I am highly dubious of this film being the "last" cinematic outing for Marvel Comic’s most famous mutant hero, it does appear that SPIDER-MAN 3 could be the last to have its current talent pool. In this way, one could view the film as the third and final entry in a trilogy, which is what director Sam Raimi - who helmed the two previous films - has been always letting on.
Unfortunately, the essence of this new film being the “last” is kind of what ultimately hurts its overall worth. Instead of closing this proposed “trilogy” on triumphant and assured footing, SPIDER-MAN 3 becomes the very thing that has often diminished and hurt other once-successful comic book film franchises – it has become too overstuffed and indulgent for its own good. Instead of developing a worthwhile and intriguing storyline that was developed in the first film – but more successfully in the second entry – SPIDER-MAN 3 jams its nearly two and a half hour running time with too many characters, too many villains, and far too many needless subplots that do little to bring suitable closure to the series.
If anything, meandering storylines, one too many villains, and an annoying predication towards million dollar visual effects and maddening action sequences were what killed the first BATMAN franchise. With BATMAN FOREVER and – to a much larger degree, BATMAN AND ROBIN - we saw the disintegration of the relative worth of that DC comics film property by its heavy preponderance of big budget spectacle, multi-million dollar merchandising and cross promotions, and a reliance on cramming the screen with far too many villains for one film.
Although SPIDER-MAN 3 has decidedly more going for it than either of those two BATMAN entries, it still nevertheless is afflicted by some of their weaknesses. Most notably, SPIDER-MAN 3 suffers from annoying excess and frivolity. It is an effort that seems to have been spawned more by the filmmaker’s yearning to appease fans first and to make a coherent, assured, and focused story second. If SPIDER-MAN 3 is – in fact – the last of the films with Raimi and company, then it certainly shows in the way he and his writers cram three film’s worth of characters and subplots into one final, unsatisfying entry. By doing this, SPIDER-MAN loses a bit of clarity by what made its first two films so endearing and entertaining. There is simply an overabundance of…well…everything in the film. There is nothing wrong, fundamentally speaking, with giving the fans what they crave, but there is something to be said with knowing when to stop. At several points in SPIDER-MAN 3, it certainly did not know when to.
Perhaps cataclysmic expectations also precluded this film's overindulgent choices. There certainly is a past credo for making films of this nature bigger and broader. That can be done to great effect, but the problem there lies with focus and discipline. Eye-popping spectacle and out-of-body visuals can be a pleasure to sit through, and SPIDER-MAN 3 offers up – at least some of the time – many spirited and feisty sequences. However, when they are at the service of a story that is too waterlogged for its own good, then that drains out the enjoyment factor.
The crucial element of the first two SPIDER-MAN films were that they created an charming and likeable hero. SPIDER-MAN (2002) introduced us to the nerdy teenaged Peter Parker (played with earnest sentiment, spunk, and light-heartedness by Tobey Maguire) that fondly reminded viewers of what made the original comics so cherished. Spider-Man and Parker were comic characters that were the most relatable: they suffered from the same sort of daily dilemmas that we did. It’s hard to relate to…say…Batman, who is a revenge-fuelled vigilante that is forever psychological scarred. Ditto for the Hulk, who is a radiation-induced monster. Yet, Spider-Man was easy to invest in because of the normalcy behind his super-hero exploits. He may be able to spin a web any size and catch thieves just like flies, but in his daily life he has everyday problems, like getting a girlfriend, looking after his aging Aunt, making end’s meat, and getting his homework done on time. In the annals of costume-clad heroes, Spider-Man was an extraordinary hero with normal, everyday problems.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) knew this key to wall-crawler as well, and it emerged on a short list with BATMAN BEGINS and the original 1978 SUPERMAN as one of the best of the super hero films. I liked the exuberance and playfulness of the first SPIDER-MAN, which was essentially an origin film, but with the sequel the screenplay was given more ample time to develop the man behind the mask. SPIDER-MAN 2 worked so famously because of its focus on the humanity of its hero and the people around him. The characters became more developed and realized. That film did what so many comic book sequels in the past failed to do. The third outing simply does not continue on with this because its attention is too easily distracted.
As the film opens we see Peter Parker (again played with warmth and humility by Maguire) on the verge of asking the love of his life, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him. You may recall that – at the end of the second film – Mary Jane finally discovered Pete’s secret life and came to grips with it…sort of. In SPIDER-MAN 3 things are seemingly going perfect for the hero. He’s got the girl of his dreams that loves him and the public has fallen completely in love with his heroic alter ego. Sure, he still lives in a dilapidated studio apartment which looks like it could be condemned at any moment, has a cranky Russian landlord, and an even crankier boss in the form of Daily Bugle editor J. J. Jameson (played as humorously as ever by the very funny J.K. Simmons), but he’s a lad in love. Not only that, but New Yorkers worship Spider-Man. He’s front-page material everyday, plays on giant jumbo screens in Times Square, and soon will be given the key to the City. If anything, Peter’s ego is at an all-time high.
Things are not completely wonderful for the couple. Peter’s former best friend, Harry Osborne (played with sniveling lecherousness by James Franco) continues to plot his revenge of Spider-Man. He, of course, believes that the hero killed his father, the original Green Goblin, and at the end of the first sequel he discovered dad’s secret lab of high tech weaponry and secret serum that made his father a deadly foe. Taking up his dad’s mantle, Harry becomes the new Goblin, and in an explosive – if not chaotic and visually confusing – opening action scene, he viscously attacks Peter while he rides home on his scooter. Even worse, Peter almost loses his Aunt’s engagement ring that she gave to him to give to M.J.. After a spectacular battle, Peter manages to fend of Harry, but the latter has a terrible crash and gets seriously injured. In plot development worthy of an episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES, Harry develops a very, very convenient bout of amnesia, which makes Pete’s life easier…for the time being.
Harry could have been a perfectly fitting villain for this film, but SPIDER-MAN 3 feels the need to add not one, but two more top of him. Flint Marko (the hulked-out, but dramatically underused Thomas Hayden Church) is revealed to be Peter’s Uncle’s real killer. He is a con on the run when he flees to a forbidden scientific test sight, which has the single worst security perimeter of any secret lab site in movie history. While hiding from the police in a particle acceleration chamber, Marko is forever changed into The Sandman, a T-1000-esque villain that can manipulate his body in any shape in the form of sand. His origins are undeniably preposterous and silly, but Sandman looks menacing and cool.
To make matters even worse, a strange meteor has crash landed on earth carrying an odd and eerie black alien substance that grows an “attraction” to Peter’s Spidey suit. It eventually clings to it, changes it black, and even enhances Peter’s powers, all while changing his temperament and disposition for the worse. Peter soon becomes a belligerent, angry, and spiteful young man that hurls angry verbal assaults at the loved ones around him. This hurts his relationship with them - especially M.J. - but with his newfound bad boy persona (kind of mirroring a subplot in SUPERMAN III, minus the tar-laced Kryponite) he manages to become a major swinger in Manhattan. In short, he becomes a sexist and repulsive dick.
But wait…there’s more! There is also competing freelance photographer Eddie Brock (played with cocky and slimy bravado by Topher Grace) who battles it out with Peter for a head job at the Bugle. At one point he does a bogus cover story to incriminate Spider-Man, but when Peter proves it to be the fake that it is, Eddie is fired and vows revenge on him. Fate strikes his wishes in the form of that same alien entity that bonded with Peter. Soon, the alien senses Eddie’s aggression and bonds with him, turning him into the monstrous Venom, an evil Spider-Man clone with a crocodile’s mouth and a snake’s tongue. He has all of Spidey’s powers and – worst of all – knows his identity. Within no time, he teams up with Sandman to get rid of the web head once and for all.
SPIDER-MAN 3 does have some good things going for it. Firstly, Maguire’s performance is – for the most part – grounded and real, and he creates heartfelt emotion and sentiment with his portrayal of the angst ridden dual character. He has many fine, quite moments with Dunst, who has good chemistry with him. Dunst’s Mary Jane is a bit more developed here in the sense that she is also going through an emotional tailspin (her Broadway singing debut is a disastrous dud), but with Pete’s increasing self-absorption with Spidey’s popularity, she feels like she’s getting less attention. The relationship dynamic here is well handled, which only helps with later scenes between the two. One moment on a bridge where they apparently go their separate ways is kind of heartbreaking. Like SPIDER-MAN 2, the third film at least acknowledges that a large part of Spider-Man’s popularity is in its handling of the human characters. Other tender moments with Peter and his Aunt May (nicely underplayed by Rosemary Harris) are also strong. On the lighter side, one cameo by a very famous Raimi film alumni is quite funny, as are all the moments with J.K. Simmon’s ostentatious newspaper editor.
However, the negatives outweigh the positives with SPIDER-MAN 3 with its chronically fatigued story and characters. With Harry, The Sandman, and Venom, the film simply has too many villains vying for the spotlight, which - in the end - leads to all of them being underdeveloped. Church as Sandman is kind of a sad figure, and his initial transformation is a masterstroke of CGI effects, but he’s given nothing really integral to do in the film but be an evil presence. The same can be held for Eddie Brock/Venom, who emerges as nothing more than a glorified cameo in the film. The Peter Parker/ Brock relationship could have been much better handled in a whole other film, but here he seems added as a last minute drop in. Venom himself as a creature also seems poorly realized. Topher Grace plays a jerk to perfection in his few moments in the film, but when his face is obscured by Venom the CG makeup is more cartoony than inspired and scary. Venom feels like a real rush job in the film, from a character and special effects standpoint.
Then there is Harry/ New Goblin himself, who is the most developed villain in the film, even when he has to occupy a sub-plot that only daytime soap operas could muster. He’s arguably the most intriguing villain of the film because his hatred of Spider-Man has festered for two films and is more deeply personal. When he gets amnesia it’s a real groaner, because now he has to re-involve himself in a love triangle with M.J. and Peter that was already done in SPIDER-MAN 1. He secretly tries to woe back the disgruntled M.J. from Peter when he gains his memory back and wound Peter where he hurts the most. The whole three-way relationship in the feel seems tired, even when Franco has a field day playing a immoral leach, but nothing is as contrived as a last minute scene with him as his butler, who decides to reveal a secret to Harry that he could have benefited from if he told him two films ago.
There are also moments where SPIDER-MAN 3 suffers from tonal inconsistency. At a price tag of over a quarter of a billion dollars (the new most expensive film of all-time) SPIDER-MAN 3 does have great visual sights amidst everything, but some of the images are better than others. John Dykstra, the Oscar Winner effects wizard from the first STAR WARS film, worked on the previous two Spidey efforts, but left the third film and was replaced by Scott Stokdyk. Some of the effects are marvelous, whereas some look unfinished. The opening battle with Harry and Peter is exhilarating, if not a bit caffeinated in terms of editing and pacing, as are the moments with the Sandman’s first fight with Spidey. The final battle, with all of the villains and heroes, is in confusing, convoluted CGI overkill-mode and punctuated by an annoying play-by play by a British news reporter. Question: if a 50 foot sand monster as tall as King Kong and demonic, spider-like creature were ravaging New York, would the spectators not run in terror instead of staying to cheer on the hero like they were watching a WWE wrestling match?
Perhaps the oddest addition to the film is a nearly cringe-inducing montage of Peter – in his new bad-boy image – prancing around New York like a womanizing gigolo, strutting his stuff like he was the love child of John Travolta from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and Will Ferrell from A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY. The sequence is funny, but seems curiously out of place for a SPIDER-MAN film. Also perplexing is a scene where Peter takes his date, Gwen Stacey (the horrendously underused Bryce Dallas Howard) to a club that M.J. works at to inspire jealousy. The character of Stacey was one of the more crucial in Spider-Man comic’s lore, but in the film – as is the case with many other characters – she is marginalized to the point of feeling like a afterthought.
There is no doubt that the fundamentalist, hard core Spider-Man fans will eat up the hero’s recent (and reported final with current cast and crew) film outing. SPIDER-MAN 3 definitely packs a wallop with its high-spirited, exciting – if not indulgent to the point of overkill – visual effects, as well as with its sensitive and thoughtful performance by Tobey Maguire in the lead dual role. Yet, remarkably extravagant CG effects done without an expense care in the book can't substitute for good, decent storytelling. Because of this, SPIDER-MAN 3 goes the way of a few of the BATMAN sequels of the past with its greedy absorption with multiple, undeveloped villains and an even messier, undisciplined narrative that jumps all over the map. There are just far too many needless ingredients thrown in hastily into this final chapter in the so-called trilogy. Overstuffed with characters and overly long by twenty minutes, SPIDER-MAN 3 is a real paradox in the way it places emphasis of effects and spectacle first and characters and plot second. Perhaps the most egregious thing about the film is that it feels more like a mass marketed commodity than it should be. SPIDER-MAN 3 is just too cumbersome and oversaturated of an experience, which is disheartening considering the strength of the previous film. SPIDER-MAN 2 showed how to make a great sequel. SPIDER-MAN 3 fails to follow suit.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, his ranking of the SPIDER-MAN films:
1. SPIDER-MAN 2
2. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) 1/2
3. SPIDER-MAN (2002)
4. SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) 1/2